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Thinking globally, acting locally

Cosmopolitanism Ethics in a World of Strangers Kwame Anthony Appiah W.W. Norton: 198 pp., $23.95

January 15, 2006|D.J. Waldie | D. J. Waldie is the author of "Where We Are Now: Notes From Los Angeles."

HOW quixotic is Kwame Anthony Appiah, the mostly optimistic philosopher of cosmopolitanism? Appiah's new book, "Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers," builds on themes that he developed two years ago in "The Ethics of Identity" and urges a pragmatic sociability on people who ordinarily manage encounters with their neighbors through guarded gates, blocked phone numbers and tinted car windows. But does Appiah's literate defense of getting to know the people next door -- and the people halfway around the world -- really have much of a chance against the fierce egoism of the self-obsessed and the fiercer loyalty of the tribal?

I'd like to think that something does, since the alternatives have dwindled to values-free globalization, spineless multiculturalism and jihad. Still, how seriously should we take Appiah's conviction that a world misshapen by the presence of suicide bombers can be reformed by conviviality?

Very seriously, he insists. For Appiah, the cosmopolitan habit of give-and-take across political, religious, gender and racial boundaries leads to nothing less than the making of a moral imagination. That imagination flinches when blows are laid on another's back, resonates with the prayers of another's worship and savors another's wisdom even when that person's experience is wholly foreign. The result isn't bland tolerance -- a polite refusal to get upset by habits not your own -- but something far harder to get at. It's the capacity for fellow-feeling and everything that properly flows from it.

"I am urging," Appiah writes, "that we should learn about people in other places, take an interest in their civilizations, their arguments, their errors, their achievements, not because that will bring us to agreement, but because it will help us get used to one another. If that is the aim, then the fact that we have ... opportunities for disagreement about values need not put us off. Understanding one another may be hard; it can certainly be interesting. But it doesn't require that we come to agreement."

The moral imagination may range freely and sympathetically in the strangeness of other values, but it remains rooted. "Cosmopolitans think that there are many values worth living by and that you cannot live by all of them," Appiah writes. "So we hope and expect that different people and different societies will embody different values. (But they have to be values worth living by.)"

Although "Cosmopolitanism" is a brief book and aimed at nonspecialists, it lingers over a philosophical argument about the universality of those values. It is important to Appiah to establish clearly that such values as kindness, forbearance and generosity have a legitimacy beyond the relativist's belief that your values and mine are purely local responses to historical and environmental conditions. (And if we agree that "each to his own taste" represents a universal principle, haven't we already agreed that one value, at least, isn't relative?)

The heroism of self-definition that runs from Voltaire to Sartre (or as emblematically from John Milton to Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is impressive but fatally limiting, Appiah warns, if the making of an unencumbered self is the only script we can follow. Individuals share the world, after all, where their value-laden words and value-driven actions jostle unendingly against those of others, necessitating conversations about what rubs each of them the wrong way and why (with implications that their complaints can be resolved).

Conversation is a modest habit on which to build a global ethics, but it's paramount in Appiah's blended British and Ghanaian experience, where cross-cultural talk mulls over traditional proverbs, the exploits of family heroes (both African and European) and the complexities of living within competing systems of obligation. (Fathers matter more in England; a mother's brothers are more important in the matrilineal system of Appiah's Asante heritage.)

The essence of Appiah's cosmopolitanism is found in this kind of conversation, which might be described as everything that a debate, manifesto or Fox News program isn't. Appiah's idea of conversation engages history, the latest Beyonce album, Shakespeare, faith and the proper response to Third World poverty. All of these topics are subject to open-ended discourse, with no requirement that you and I ever settle on anything except the pleasure (and needfulness) of talking together about them.

This worldview may well seem almost too good-natured, at a time when bullying and seduction are the accustomed modes of public conversation and the notion of an irreconcilable "clash of civilizations" is offered as a substitute for the ideal of a shared humanity. Appiah sums up his hope with the slogan "Cosmopolitanism is

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